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Jury’s out: obesity, discrimination and the law


Dr. Judith McMullen Professor, Law

Professor of Law Judith McMullen was beginning to see obesity become a significant issue in family law, her area of expertise. What started as a little digging eventually became a research paper for one of the Law School’s publications, Elder’s Advisor Law Review. She examines societal attitudes toward obesity and how those attitudes are represented in the legal system. How much protection do people have if they’re fired — or not hired — because they’re obese? “The laws on this are complicated — and kind of unsettled,” McMullen says. “The bottom line is there are not a lot of legal protections in the workplace for people who are obese.” Though McMullen cites a wide array of research that points to obesity as a disease, she says current policies — from employment law to what’s covered under health care plans — often reflect the perception that obesity is simply a matter of willpower. “In this society, it is very difficult, the stuff people have to put up with in terms of verbal abuse and unsolicited advice and just getting treated like they’re invisible,” McMullen says. “Nobody should have to go through that.”

Choi, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, is studying animals’ physiological responses to food to help determine how the human brain regulates the body’s energy intake and storage. Choi says the biological systems that govern food consumption go far beyond making sure the body eats enough to stay alive. “All these things that we think are personalities — I’m a chocolate fiend or I’m a chip fiend — really are more dictated by the signaling patterns in your brain,” Choi says. “We can see some of that. That makes it very interesting to know that these are not necessarily in our voluntary control. It’s really our physiological makeup.”

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marquette university discover magazine 2014

In one experiment, a group of animals was given access to regular food in its cages 24 hours a day, then given tastier food for 30 minutes a day. The animals began to ignore the regular food and wait for the tastier food to arrive — then overeat, knowing the tastier food would be taken away soon. Are there certain genes that dictate this behavior? Choi is part of a group that received a $400,000 grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse to develop a new animal model that can more closely model human physiological reactions to conditions such as compulsive eating. Choi says researchers are only beginning to understand how it all works. “It’s as simple as: ‘Eat less. Exercise more,’” Choi says. “But it’s as complicated as the universe.”


For Dr. SuJean Choi, the key to fighting obesity can be found in the brain.

Dr. SuJean Choi Associate Professor, Biomedical Sciences

Your brain: hard-wired for chocolate?

Discover Research 2014  

Every spring DISCOVER: Marquette University Research and Scholarship showcases some of the most interesting research happening on Marquette'...

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